How the World Views U.S. Foreign Policy | Opinion

Every year since its establishment, the Eurasia Group Foundation has devoted the bulk of its time and resources toward producing in-depth public opinion surveys about U.S. foreign policy. Many of those studies have highlighted a wide gap between the more humble, pragmatic foreign policy the American public desires and the largely interventionist, reflective approach typified by U.S. policy elites in Washington, D.C. Others focus on global favorability trends toward the U.S. and its democracy, which offer a significant quantity of valuable data for journalists, analysts and practitioners to pour through.

The latest study, authored by researchers Caroline Gray and Mark Hannah, was fielded at a time when the coronavirus crisis was beginning to change how U.S. society functioned and how the nation conducted business. A total of 10 countries were used as case studies. The worldwide sample increased to 5,249 participants. While the entire report is certainly worth reading, several observations jump out.

The first that immediately comes to mind is just how popular the United States remains around the world compared to its competitors, even after years of dealing with former U.S. President Donald Trump, who took pride in being rough-around-the-edges. Roughly 50 percent of the participants who were surveyed by the organization have a favorable opinion of the U.S., with 29 percent registering neutrality and 22 percent holding unfavorable feelings. The love (or at least respect) spans across continents, with over 77 percent of Indians, 66 percent of Nigerians, 70 percent of Brazilians and 60 percent of Poles holding favorable opinions of Uncle Sam.

At a time when more and more of the mainstream conversation about world affairs is being defined (rightly or wrongly) as a global contest between Washington and Beijing, the Eurasia Group Foundation finds that three-quarters of respondents prefer the U.S. to China as the world's leading power—less because the U.S. is a nation that places democracy, liberty and freedom in high esteem and more because Washington's economic weight and longstanding relationships are superior to whatever Beijing can offer.

We often hear the word "leadership" thrown about whenever U.S. foreign policy comes up for discussion, so much so that the term itself has turned into a crutch to justify otherwise bad policy decisions. For some, American leadership equates to the ability of the U.S. to lead by example. To others, it's a general catch-all for an activist foreign policy, in which the U.S. takes it upon herself to slay bad actors in pursuit of some global, rules-based, democratic utopia. While the Eurasia Group Foundation survey doesn't explicitly define what "U.S. leadership" means (after all, the term is about as structurally sound as Jell-O), the group does discover that foreign publics generally approve of it. India, the South Asian giant the Biden administration is courting as it seeks to create a hedge against China, holds U.S. influence in especially high card—about 80 percent of Indians gave a "very positive" or "somewhat positive" response to the question. For Japanese, interestingly, the figure is only 28 percent (45 percent say U.S. influence in East Asia and/or Japan over the last 20 years have had little to no difference).

U.S. flag
The U.S. flag is pictured. Gary Hershorn/Getty Images

This, of course, doesn't mean the U.S. is viewed favorably across the board. Russian and Chinese respondents are highly critical of U.S. foreign policy, especially toward their respective countries. Thirty-nine percent of Chinese participants had a favorable opinion of the U.S. in 2020, a 15-point decline from the previous year. In Russia, over 55 percent believe U.S. foreign policy has made the world worse off.

Things aren't looking especially bright for the U.S. in Germany either. In Washington, D.C., the U.S.-Germany relationship is treated as one of America's most sacred. The U.S. military's largest facilities in Europe reside on German soil, with tens thousands of U.S. troops stationed there on a permanent basis. Even in the midst of the world's worst pandemic in a century, the U.S.-German trade relationship was $172 billion last year. Only 18 percent of Germans, however, think the U.S. has used its influence to good effect in Europe—a continent whose security is still largely being carried on the U.S. military's shoulders. As Gray and Hannah wrote, "People in Germany, more than any other country surveyed, hold an unfavorable view of American ideas of democracy and of the U.S. more generally."

Normally, public opinion surveys tend to be more valuable for academics and scholars than the practitioners actually responsible for crafting and executing U.S. foreign policy. The Eurasia Group Foundation study, however, is different because it inquires about specific policies that may be contributing to the negative views some have of the U.S. Washington's arms sales policy is a case in point, coming in for mixed reviews. Twenty-eight percent of respondents overall don't know if partnering with the U.S. military is a positive or a negative for their countries—a quite shocking statistic when one considers the roughly 800 military bases, facilities and sites the U.S. maintains overseas.

How important these survey results will be in the minds of U.S. officials as they formulate policy is a guessing game. If anything should guide U.S. foreign policy, it is U.S. interests—not the need to be liked by a particular country. Geopolitics isn't a middle school popularity contest.

But if reports like these can provide a little more clarity and context as support for realism and restraint within U.S. foreign policy circles, then so much the better.

Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow with the Defense Priorities think tank, columnist at the Washington Examiner and a contributor to The National Interest.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.